Rapid City gave me a good night’s sleep and I was on the road early the following morning with every intention of being in Cody in the early afternoon. Of course, that was before I got to Spearfish and
remembered the Canyon drive and tried to calculate how long it had been since I was last up that way and then gave up on the math. Just now I can tell you that it has been seven days since I was last in the Spearfish Canyon. This is good math 🙂
The Spearfish Canyon road takes the path of the old tourist railway which fell into disrepair and was eventually abandoned. This means that the road follows along the river, winding and turning in a charming and scenic route. I’m less sure that it would be so charming under a few feet of snow, but in October it was captivating.
It was 50 degrees when I left Rapid City at around 5 a.m. and by the time I got to the Latchstring Restaurant at the top of the Canyon, it was 26 degrees. I had been leaping in and out of the car trying to capture the sunrise and my hands wanted very much to be wrapped around a hot cup of coffee, so I stopped for a breakfast of eggs, trout and potatoes that would have made my great-aunt Mary very proud. Years ago, she owned a fishing camp on the Gunnison River in Colorado and it was she who introduced me to the delights of a crisp pan fried trout first thing in the morning. Watching the sun spill down the far mountainside at a window overlooking the river, it was a good, good morning. At some point, I’m going back and will stay there at the Spearfish Canyon Lodge (www.spfcanyon.com) if for no other reason than to be there for the sunset as well.
Technically, the Lodge is in Lead, an old Black Hills gold mining town which was home to the Homestake Mine, which was the largest and most productive gold mine in the western hemisphere. The mine closed in 2002, and because of the depth of the mine, the site has been chosen as the location for the proposed NSF “Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory” which is meant to study among other things, dark matter, neutrinos, nuclear physics, biology and mine engineering. It sounds a lot like the new set for “Big Bang Theory” to me, but at least it will re-purpose the Homestake.
Leaving Lead, (pronounced “leed” by the way) I went to a slightly better known Black Hills mining town, Deadwood. Established in the 1870’s in territory that is still contested as having been granted to the Lakota Sioux in the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868. The dispute still periodically rises to the Supreme Court, but clearly, no conclusion has been reached. The “illegal” status of the town has been used, however, to reverse the acquittal of Jack McCall, the murderer of Wild Bill Hickock. Declaring the town “illegal” and the acquittal invalid, McCall was retried in the Dakota Territory Court, convicted and hanged. Hickcock, along with Calamity Jane and many others (of course) are buried in the Mount Moriah Cemetery outside town. Deadwood has to be the model for every western ever made that features a hard drinking, fighting, gambling and whoring town. It is sort of hard to believe just now. Of course, the town has been burned pretty much to the ground, had the population destroyed by smallpox, and has become a National Historic District, changing the nature of the place irrevocably. In October it is a tourist attraction and a lovely location. The information center is located in the old train station and is comprehensive and beautifully done.
Meandering the Canyon and through the mining towns set me off my schedule by about four hours, so by the time I made the loop back to the city of Spearfish and was back on the I-90 track to Wyoming, I was resolved to make up time.
Until I got into Wyoming and stopped at the Visitor’s Center. I was reminded there of the Devil’s Tower, just 20 minutes out of my way. Such a beautiful day! Such an amazing place. I had to go. In deference to my schedule, I did not take the time to walk around the base – it takes about 45 minutes, but I certainly wanted to. Now I have to go back. I’m ok with that.
The Devils Tower National Monument is a dramatic and mystic laccolith that looms 1,267 feet above the Belle Fourche River. At the summit it is 5, 112 feet above sea level. It is first sighted some 15 miles away, and then is hidden again by forests of Ponderosa pine surrounding foothills, emerging at odd moments as a kind of surprise. It is the first declared United States National Monument, so named by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. There is no angle of view that does not inspire awe. Well, except maybe for the prairie dogs near the river. They remain unimpressed.
Leaving the Tower I really had to get to Cody. It was still six hours away (at best!) and I had a dinner party to attend. So it was back to the highway, onward to Gillette and on Highway 16 for a trip over the Beartooth Mountains. It was all I could do to keep myself moving on the trip – the autumn gold of the poplars fairly shimmered against the pines, those pines holding last night’s snow. The road was clear, and from the wide sweeping curves to the hairpin corners, there were amazing vistas. There is a reason they call it the “Cloud Peak Skyway.” But I pressed on, through Buffalo, Ten Sleep, Worland and Greybull, pulling into Cody with just enough time to wash my face and change my shirt before heading out to a birthday party given for my hostess in Cody where one martini was really too many for a weary traveler, and three was a disaster. But in a sense I was at home, so it was almost the right place to break bad. I had a few days of rest to look forward to before heading back east again.
There are a few reasons I am so comfortable in Cody. The first is that it is a place I have gone to repeatedly over the course of my life. My grandparents lived in Grand Junction, Colorado, and we lived in the Seattle area, so every year we would pack up and go to Colorado – through Cody. Part of the attraction is in the town itself. Unlike Jackson Hole, which is very upscale and slick (in my eyes, ) Cody has retained a sort of “old west” feeling over all the years. Then there is The Buffalo Bill Historic Center, the oldest museum in the West. Founded in 1917, the museum is now the home of not only the Buffalo Bill Collection, but is also the Plains Indians Museum, the Winchester Arms Collection, the Whitney Gallery of Western Art and the Draper Museum of Natural History. It seems that every couple of years the Museum expands to become even more amazing. Right now they are in the process of dismantling the Buffalo Bill Collection in order to create a dynamic, interactive experience that will help put The Wild West Show, Buffalo Bill and the period in which he lived and operated into perspective for modern eyes. Although it will take a couple of years to complete, I can hardly wait to see the result. It makes me want to load up kids at random and take them out to see the treasures kept in Cody. Adults will take themselves, but this is a place every American kid should get a chance to appreciate.
Cody holds other treasures for me. I had a few days to visit with friends I see rarely in a part of the country that appeals to everything I am. David joined me there after his hunt and we were able to rest and regroup before heading 2000 miles home.
That trip home is a bit of a blur, I have to admit. I tried to make notes on the most memorable things along the highway – but the days were long and held many, many miles. The first day was from Cody to Mitchell, South Dakota, the second from Mitchell to Champaign, Illinois and the third from Champaign to home. We arrived to happy dogs and cats around 8:30 in the evening and the trip was done. I’m still trying to get my land legs.
I can tell you that the scenery from my childhood to now is mostly changed. For one thing, the black soil of Minnesota seems to be growing a whole lot of wind generators. Before the sun comes up, all of those blinking red lights are just plain disorienting. It takes daylight to understand the significance of all those lights blinking across the horizon. Some things remain the same though. Ohio is still under construction. I swear, it has always been thus. The new grain silos seem bigger, and the old ones along the railroad seem to have fallen on hard times. I guess there is new technology in farming as in all things. Another thing that remains is that the autumn reds of hardwoods start to show up around Indiana and become more and more pronounced as you move east into Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania. This time the skies were clear and autumn was putting on its best face as we rolled over the Alleghenies and back into Maryland. After having driven westward through the driving rain, it was wonderful to get a chance to appreciate the changing season, if only briefly.